Saturday, 28 September 2013

Independence and History: A Walk from San Martin to Bolivar, in Lima, Peru

I walked from Bolívar to San Martín in Santiago de Chile, enjoyed myself, and learned a lot about Chile and its history. Several people said they enjoyed the blog, so I thought I might do it again, in Lima, Peru, where I was researching the quipu project, about the forced sterilizations of thousands of people under the Fujirmori government, as well as looking at the origins of the first sports clubs in Peru. This time I would walk from San Martín to Bolívar, the reverse of my Santiago walk.

This time it didn’t go quite so well.

San Marin in the Plaza San Martin in Lima
For a start I was very poorly prepared. The Santiago walk had a long genesis, and was planned over drinks with friends and historians: I took on advice and moulded my plans accordingly. In Lima, I got up early, overwhelmed by enthusiasm for the idea, swallowed a cortado doble, got on the Metropolitano bus, and was stood in the Plaza San Martín, ready to go, before I had even considered a route, a plan, a map or a direction.

So I looked around the Plaza San Martín for a while. In contrast to his peripheral position in Santiago, in Lima San Martin is the man. San Martín led his liberating army up from Chile, and presented himself to Peruvians as a Protector, modelling his title on Oliver Cromwell. Peruvians were nonplussed. San Martín camped out for many months before finally ceding to Bolívar and bidding goodbye to the country he had taken as his own. His statue therefore dominates his plaza from an enormous pedestal. I think he looks down his nose at the Hotel Bolívar opposite him. Behind him stand an HSBC bank and the Fenix Club; both I think legacies of the British presence in Peru in the nineteenth century. The square is unrecognisable from when I was last here in 2000: it is now clean, bright and civic. I didn’t recognise anything.

The starting point: with San Martin's statue behind me, and the Hotel Bolivar in front of me.
I strode off. Following the previous walk’s model my aim was to walk to the statue of Bolívar in Plaza Bolívar going only along roads named after independence figures. Immediately I waded into a marsh of difficulty: very few roads in central Lima are named after independence figures. In stark contrast  to the protagonist role Heroes were given in Santiago, in Lima it is places that carry you here and there, an attempt by nineteenth-century urban planners to inculcate a sense of republican territoriality within the capital’s citizens. (Chile’s occupation of Lima during the War of the Pacific, which resulted in the loss of a substantial chunk of Peru’s and Bolivia’s national territories, may have had something to do with that). There are one or two exceptions. What was Wilson (named after Bolívar’s aide-de-camp, who was later British Minister in Lima) is now Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, for example. Generally the streets retain their colonial names. I circled the grid like a vulture hungry for Independence, and found nothing. 

Soon I was lost.

Happily lost. I wandered the streets, enjoying the vitality, the smells, the restored urban architecture, turning here and there, stopping for coffee, stopping for advice. I immersed myself in Lima’s historical centre, its casco, sensing its proud revindication of its colonial glories, contrasting that with the beggars and poverty encrusted along its pavements.  I became tired.  The incessant honking of car horns, klaxons, and the revving of engines passed from being vibrant and intoxicating to being annoying. Eventually I happened upon Calle Emancipación. This would have to do.

Tiring quickly, I fell onto Camaná street and into the Instituto Riva-Agüero, a city-centre outpost of the Catholic University, and where I had spent many afternoons researching my Masters thesis on Lord Cochrane and the British and Irish naval volunteers, years ago. In the IRA I saw a poster for an event organised by Gabriel Ramón on La patria, los monumentos y el espacio publico en Lima. My salvation! Unfortunately it was to take place the day after I left Lima. My historical urban education would remain incomplete.

I consulted my map, looking for the shortest possible route. I found it. Out along Camaná, four blocks, turn right onto Avenida Junín – named after Bolívar’s major battle in Peru, the 1824 battle of Junín (after which Bolívar headed straight for Lima, leaving Sucre to actually win the war against the royalists). I marched along Junín – a straight line wasn’t possible, but I kept my speed up. Plaza Bolívar sits outside the Congress, closed by Fujimori in his auto-golpe self-coup of 1992, now well and truly open and a unfortunately often a byword for corruption and clientelism. Bolívar looks away from Congress and over Lima, majestic on his horse as ever. His square is fenced off with green spikes, so the public cannot get near his statue (or their Congress). 
Bolivar in the Plaza Bolivar, Lima. Explanatory note: the zoom on my camera is broken. Nevertheless, I was still trying to made a point re: restrictions on access, and by extension restrictions to democracy, regardless of my technological inabilities.
In the picture a TV reporter might just be seen speaking to camera, so special permissions must be sometimes granted. I wasn’t in the mood for special pleading, nor for chatting with the riot police unconsciously grazing at the side of the square. My walk had shown me that the place of Independence in Peruvian history, its historiography, and its urban landscape, remains a problematic and complicated matter. I should have known this already. Historians such as Cecilia Mendez, Natalia Sobrevilla Perea, Charles Walker, Heraclio Bonilla, Mónica Ricketts and others have demonstrated the ambiguities and paradoxes of political loyalties amongst Peruvians during the Independence period. There are no straight lines, no binary splits, no easy answers. I walked back to the library, dragging my feet.


  1. I love the way you approach the city where I lived most of my life and you are able to see so many things that I had never been conscious about. Things we limenhxs take for granted might be actually the reflection of our complex identity. No easy answers indeed. Keep posting! Kat


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